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Evaluating land cover change and its impact on hydrological regime in Upper Shire river catchment, Malawi


A study was conducted to investigate hydrological impacts of land cover changes in the degradation of the hydrological on flow regimes of the Upper Shire river, Malawi. Remote sensing techniques were used to inventory temporal changes of land cover changes in the catchment. Hydrological data were analyzed to reveal the alterations and trends for two periods; 1989 and 2002. The study revealed significant changes in magnitude and direction that have occurred in the catchment between 1989 and 2002, mainly in areas of human habitation. Trends in land cover change in the Upper Shire river catchment depict land cover transition from woodlands to mostly cultivated/grazing and built-up areas. The land cover mapping showed that 23% of the land was covered by agricultural land in 1989. Subsistence agricultural area has increased by 18%, occupying 41% of the study area in 2002. The effects of the derived land cover changes on river flow in the Upper Shire river were investigated using the semi distributed soil and water assessment tool (SWAT) model. River flows were found to be highly variable and sensitive to land cover changes. Simulation results show that 2002 land cover data produces higher flow peaks and faster travel times compared to the 1989 land cover data. The changes detected indicate the effects of land use pressure in the catchment. The study highlights the importance of considering effects of land use and land cover changes on ecosystems, and water resources for an informed decision on proper catchment planning and management.

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  1. Over the last three decades, population density in the Southern Region of Malawi (Shire River catchment located within this region) has shown an upward trend. The population density is given as 139 people km², 105 people km², and 85 people km² in the period 2008, 1998 and 1987, respectively.


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This research was facilitated by a grant from Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD) through the African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions (ANSTI) for collaborative University level training and research in the fields of science and technology. Besides, the authors wish to express their gratitude to the anonymous reviewers, who helped to improve this paper through their thorough review.

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Correspondence to Lobina Gertrude Palamuleni.

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Palamuleni, L.G., Ndomba, P.M. & Annegarn, H.J. Evaluating land cover change and its impact on hydrological regime in Upper Shire river catchment, Malawi. Reg Environ Change 11, 845–855 (2011).

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  • Hydrological regimes
  • Shire River
  • Land cover change
  • Malawi
  • Mass curves